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Excerpt: For King & Country

EXCERPT: FOR KING & COUNTRY
CANADIAN ROCKIES ANNUAL, VOL. 3

By Meghan J. Ward

One century after the armistice, we look back on Banff and The Great War in this excerpt from For King & Country, a feature article in Vol. 3 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.


“After a long and tiring sea voyage and a very tedious passage on the train, I arrived back in Banff last night. How good it was to be heading west into the mountains in the moonlight and hear the conductor’s familiar refrain, “Banff… Banff is the next stop.”*

On November 5, 1916, Ebenezer William Peyto stepped off the train at the Banff station. It was long past midnight and not a soul was there to greet him. As hotel transportation had ceased for the season, he walked alone in darkness to his cabin near the Bow River.

In that brisk, cold air, all was still. For Peyto, a quiet spot was a welcome refuge after three months spent fighting in France amidst bloodshed and exploding shells – one of which had wounded him badly in the thigh. So too would have been the lack of fanfare at the Banff station. “That is ‘Bill’ Peyto’s style,” noted an article in Banff’s local newspaper, the Crag & Canyon, the weekend after his return. “He never toots his own horn.”

For 30 years, until 2016, a sign featuring Peyto’s iconic portrait greeted visitors to Banff, just steps away from the Banff station. It embodied everything we know about “Wild” Bill Peyto, the outfitter, guide and park warden whose wild antics and hardiness made him a local legend. But few people know he carried that same fortitude and grit with him to war – that he, like many “Banff Boys,” left behind his post in the mountains to fight in the muddy trenches of World War I.

The Great War left no one, anywhere, untouched, and Banff was no exception. Wartime called people to unimaginable acts of bravery. It demanded ingenuity amidst uncertainty, forever changing the face of the national park. The following stories provide a glimpse into what transpired for Banff and its residents during that fateful era after war broke out on July 28, 1914. 

The Banff Boys

As a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, Canada took up arms shortly after war was declared in 1914. Although Britain initially requested that Canada provide 25,000 troops, in the end, 620,000 went to war – an astonishing ratio considering the country’s population of just 8 million. Sadly, just under 60,000 were killed overseas; nearly 173,000 were wounded.

By all accounts, Banff’s response to the war was equally admirable and, in the beginning, enthusiastic. By February of 1915, 102 men from Banff had enlisted. “When one takes into consideration the fact that the winter population in Banff is not greatly in excess of 1,000, this town has contributed more men for king and country than any other town or city, in proportion to population, in the Dominion,” the Crag & Canyon proudly reported. Within two years, with conscription in place, as well as looser regulations for new recruits, a total of 266 “Banff Boys” had enlisted.

Much of what we know about the experience of Banff’s contingent of soldiers can be found in articles and correspondences published in the Crag & Canyon. The newspaper provided an integral connection between the home front and those on the battlefield, and in many cases was the sole source of information for people desperate to know what was happening across the pond.

Sid Unwin

One of the first of Banff’s Boys to respond to the call, Sergeant Sidney Unwin – perhaps best known as the guide who accompanied Mary Schäffer on her Maligne Lake explorations – lost his right arm in combat and later died of his wounds in June 1917. Jasper National Park’s Mount Unwin, which he first ascended in 1908, is named after him. [Photo: Sergt. S. Unwin, 1916, Madame Selby Parsons Oak Studio Palmers Green (photographer). Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Sid Unwin fond (V25/pa-7)]

Sergt. Harry Laycock writes a letter from France,” began one article in the Crag & Canyon on June 23, 1917. “He can’t speak too highly of the way the Banff boys have come to the colors, and says that there can’t possibly be any ‘git’ left in the old mountains.” The article described Laycock’s gratitude for gifts from home, such as socks and cigarettes. “He often meets the Banff boys and Banff is their main topic of conversation,” the article continued. “What a beautiful place Banff is to them from the distant battlefields surrounded by desolation and destruction….”

Between 1914 and 1918, the newspaper covered new enlistments, general updates from the front, notable achievements – such as Colonel Philip Albert Moore’s rise to high ranks and responsibility – and sobering news regarding injuries and deaths.

“Into our peaceful valley the news comes that another Banff lad has given up all for his friends and country. Pte. John Lomax has died of wounds is the official notice,” wrote the Crag & Canyon about the 19-year-old on April 21, 1917. John’s two older brothers also died, before their 24th birthdays, as a result of the war.

Fifty-two Banff boys did not come home. Those who did faced a tough re-entry. “You can bank on the fact they were all in the thick of the scrap, doing their duty fearlessly like true men and soldiers,” commented the Crag & Canyon on May 17, 1919. “Some day, when recollection of the horrors has been softened by the flight of time, the boys may loosen up and relate some of the sights witnessed and deeds done.”

Time has taught us just how many of these wounds would never heal. […]

→ Keep reading this piece in Volume 3 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.

* This is the November 6, 1916, entry from E.J. (Ted) Hart’s fictional, though heavily researched, book, Ain’t It Hell: Bill Peyto’s Mountain Journal.

Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.